Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

Teacher Zone
Latin America Team Dispatch

 We picked this dispatch as today's "Best."
 Click here to have future picks e-mailed to you!

Rope of Many Colors, an Inca System of Communication

Click image for larger view
This means, You owe me thirty dollars - maybe
Suppose you didn't have a written language but you wanted to send a message to someone about how much money they owed you, or how many workers you needed in your part of the country? The Incas did not know writing as you and I do, but they sure knew math and they created a system of recording data by means of a quipu (KEE poo) [or khipu in Quechua]. To the north, the Mayan civilization created a written language in the form of hieroglyphs - symbols that represent whole words, syllables and vowels.

The Incas were very organized and the government was continually monitoring areas under its control. They sent and received many messages a day, relaying information about the kinds of resources needed at a building site or inventories available in storehouses, taxes due or collected, census data, the output of mines, or even how many workers there were at a particular site. (Governments haven't changed much in their need to know.) Runners were sent from station to station, set about 8-15 miles apart, to carry the messages. At each station, an arriving runner would hand off the message to a rested runner, who would then carry the message onward. The messages had to be light and compact so that the runners could carry them easily.

Check out this colorful Quipu on a website in French!
Click here for details on quipus and how to make your own!
The messages were called a quipu, which is a device made of colored, knotted and braided cotton cords or strings. There is a main cord from which other cords hang. All types of information could be recorded according to the colors, the type of knot used and where it was placed, the kinds of braids, how the cords were connected, and the spaces between the cords and the knots.

If you'd like to find out more about how to spell your name in Mayan, visit the Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing website
A man by the name of Leland L. Locke deciphered the knots in the early 1920's, and correlated them to a mathematical system. The system is similar to the Chinese abacus, but is more complicated. Only the quipu-makers knew how to "read" and "write" the quipus. (For more information, see this book: Code of the Quipu; a Study in Media, Mathematics and Culture, by Marcia and Robert Ascher, Dover Publications, 1997) How could the cords and the system of knots and colors relate to language? Some later researchers think that "nonstandard" quipus also told stories or poems. But, no one really knows how to interpret those knots.

The Team

Shawn - Bugging Out on the Amazon
Kevin - On the Back of Experience
Kevin - Powerful Learning Tools Discovered at the Ruins
Monica - The Roots of Present Day Peru
Making a Difference - Save the Rainforest from Your Own Backyard!
Meet the Team | Team Archive
The Team
  Basecamp | Trek Connect | Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests
Home | Search | Teacher Zone